Trump's Debate Boycott Could Backfire, GOP Fears

He needs debate more than Biden does, analysts say
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 9, 2020 6:56 AM CDT
Trump's Debate Boycott Baffles Republicans
In this Sept. 29, 2020 photo, President Trump holds up his face mask during the first presidential debate at Case Western University and Cleveland Clinic, in Cleveland, Ohio.   (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

President Trump's decision to boycott the second presidential debate with Joe Biden because it was to be held virtually has flummoxed Republican strategists, who say that with Trump behind in the polls, he's the one who needs a game-changing moment. "While an online debate is clearly problematic, no debate at all is worse," veteran GOP pollster Frank Luntz tells Politico. Other analysts say Trump might be bluffing—or he is worried that holding the debate virtually would highlight the fact that he is infected with the coronavirus. More:

  • Both debates are in doubt. Trump's infection has raised doubts about the Oct. 22 third debate as well as the Oct. 15 one, the Hill reports. Experts say that while Trump will be less of a health risk on Oct 22, some of his staffers could still be infectious and the commission might decide to make that debate virtual as well. Biden's campaign says it is looking forward to the Oct. 22 debate—which is tied for the latest debate date in the last 40 years—but it has turned down the Trump campaign's request for another debate on Oct. 29.

  • Trump team wants commission to reconsider. Trump's campaign manager, who is also infected with COVID-19, urged the Commission on Presidential Debates to reconsider the Oct. 15 debate late Thursday, the Washington Post reports. Bill Stepien said Trump's doctor had predicted the president would be cleared for public events by the weekend and called for the commission to reinstate the in-person debate. Commission head Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr, however, said Biden was already committed to a replacement event and both the Biden campaign and the Cleveland Clinic would have to approve any change in plans.
  • "Not much in it for Biden." Analysts say there is little incentive for Biden to agree to more debates. "Trump needs the debates," said Democratic strategist Joel Payne tells the Hill. "He needs to draw a contrast with Biden. He’s check-mated a little bit." He adds: "There’s not much in it for Biden other than just more exposure."
  • Format for third debate unclear. The Oct. 15 debate was supposed to be a town-hall event. Biden, who now plans to hold a town hall on ABC that day, suggested Wednesday that the Oct. 22 debate take that format. He confirmed Wednesday that he would be there in any case. "We agreed to three debates back in the summer," Biden said, per the AP. "I’m showing up. I’ll be there. And if, in fact, he shows up, fine. If he doesn’t, fine."
  • Precedent for a boycott. Politico notes that if Trump does boycott the second debate it will draw extra attention to the remaining one—but that ended up backfiring for Jimmy Carter in 1980 when he skipped the first debate with Ronald Reagan because independent candidate John B. Anderson had also been invited.
(In 2016, Trump skipped a debate in Iowa after Fox refused to cough up $5 million for his charities.)

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